Monday, July 14, 2014

#134: "Navigating Change" by Linda Dyer


                                        ~~This story originally appeared in The Fourth River (2006)

            Squatting at the end of Aisle One, Henry Pruitt is setting up a display of crabgrass killer at his hardware store on Dewitt Street.  He fondles each green and white box as he takes it from the carton, drinking in the familiar chemical smell as he stacks them on the shelf.  As surely as July follows June, crabgrass killer always follows rose dust at the end of Aisle One.  Henry finds great comfort in the seasonal repetition of his business.
           As he stands back to admire the tidy arrangement of box on box, Captain Thomas J. Smith is passing under the State Street bridge, the prow of his aged wooden boat pointed westward on the New York State Barge Canal.  A cluster of three women stare at his approach from the door of The Quilting Bee, while customers on the Canalside Café’s dining deck squint at the sun-glared water until the old man, rope in hand, leaps from his boat onto the towpath, stopping at the landing below the restaurant deck.  From the time he is first spotted, his advance is steady, unhurried, almost dreamy, yet his arrival will always be described as coming like a bolt out of the blue.
            By rights, Henry’s daughter Eunice should have been the first to spot the captain.  Eunice is the self-appointed guardian of the canal, pacing its bank even in the gray chill of winter when the canal is empty or in the dampness of early spring when the canal re-opens.  She’s been there since ten o’clock this morning, alone as usual, sitting in dappled shade on the south bank of the canal, west of the Main Street bridge.  With her full cotton skirt tucked carefully around her legs, she presides over a private world fenced in by a circle of books and notebooks.
            At the moment of Captain Smith’s arrival she is looking in the opposite direction, watching a group of scum dunkers, exuberant boys of eleven, twelve or thirteen, as they jump from the railroad bridge into the murky water of the canal, then scramble back to repeat their act of daring.  The scene is like a snapshot.  The air is still, the water placid; flat-bottomed cumulus clouds hang motionless.  Yet it is not a snapshot.  A breeze picks up.  A boy leaps from the bridge, disturbing the water of the canal.  Updrafts and downdrafts wander the cloud’s interior, changing its size and shape.


Change is startling, though, especially in this town.  The four corners of the village center have boasted the same brick buildings for over 150 years.  The black walnut tree by the State Street bridge must be almost that old.  Even the blacksmith shop is still standing, now in use as Henry Pruitt’s hardware store.  The canal has sliced through town since it was the old Erie Canal, which opened in 1825.  By the Civil War the railroad had stolen the Erie’s thunder, but it was the canal that made New York the Empire State.  It still colors life here.  Not a day goes by a body doesn’t cross it half a dozen times, not to mention jogging or cycling on the towpath or canoeing and whatnot.  Water has a way of drawing people to it. 
            At the moment, Henry is intent on his display work.  He isn’t thinking about the canal, and he doesn’t know about Captain Smith yet.  He isn’t even thinking about Eunice, although she keeps house for him as well as teaching school.  Surely scum dunkers, crazy galoots as Henry calls them, are the farthest thing from his mind.  “What’s the matter with parents these days,” Henry has asked many a time, “letting their kids be so foolhardy?”  He forgets that boys were doing the same thing twenty-odd years ago when Eunice was that age.
            Although Henry never knew it, Eunice used to secretly watch the scum-dunking boys from her class at school.  She’d be there for hours, hiding in the leaves of the weeping willow, its branches dipping to almost touch the water at the canal’s edge.  Now she is in plain view, but these boys don’t notice her.  They are more interested in proving how daring they are.  Their mothers warn repeatedly that the dirty canal water is apt to cause disease, not to mention that what they are doing is against the law.  To the boys such dire warnings make it all the more satisfying.  It shows their determination to be masters of their own lives.
            If anyone asked Eunice why she is watching so intently, she might say it puts her in mind of when she was that age.  In fact, if she were the kind who liked to talk she might go on to say that the skinny boy with longish dark hair reminds her of Ari Farr the way he flicks his wet hair back from his face.  And the blond one could be Joe Weaver, the chunky one Eddie Morrison, the stringbean Irvin Simmons.
            To Henry, Eunice’s girlhood was only yesterday, but the students she teaches at the high school would find it hard to believe that she was ever young.  Seeing her make her dreamy way in the halls between classes, students snicker, nudging one another.  “She wanders lonely as a cloud,” they stay, mocking Eunice’s high, tremulous recitation of Wordsworth’s poem.  She was young?  Impossible!
            She’s been a fixture at the high school for fourteen years.  Her students calculate her age to be around thirty-six, old enough to be set in her ways, old enough to speak of Emily Dickinson as though she were a personal friend, older than they expect to be at thirty-six, not that they can imagine they will ever be that old.
            Her students would be amazed to learn that Eunice Pruitt was once engaged to marry.  That was long ago, though, when Eunice was a first year teacher, fresh out of SUNY Geneseo.  There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then— her mother’s death from cancer, her father’s grieving, all those years of teaching Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron to students whose taste in poetry runs more to rock lyrics than the exquisite language of the poets Eunice offers them.  The years have piled one on another like duplicate sheets from the copier when she is running off one of her pop quizzes, the same quizzes she has popped in all the years before.  By now, even to Eunice that brief taste of love must seem like ancient history.  Still, as Henry says, “You take the life that’s given you.”
            A canoe or two has paddled by today, but the glory days of the canal are long gone.  When the project was first underway, its detractors dubbed it Clinton’s Ditch.  As it turned out Governor DeWitt Clinton’s brainstorm opened up the west and changed life not only for those who left to seek a better life, but changed it just as surely for those who stayed put.
            Eunice is absorbed in looking west until the boy who reminds her of Ari Farr points toward the Main Street bridge.  At first she doesn’t see anything but the bridge itself.  When she finally looks beyond the bridge and sees what they are looking at, she doesn’t quite believe it.  She thinks her daydreaming, her wild imagination as Henry calls it, is playing tricks on her.  Surely she is not seeing what she thinks she sees.
            The boys race along the towpath toward the landing by Canalside Café where a small crowd has gathered to watch the grizzled old man tie up his flat, wooden blunt-bowed boat, the kind that plied this waterway in the 1800s.  Then he turns his attention to the mules that have been pulling it.
            At first the people only talk among themselves.  It isn’t that they are stuck up or unfriendly, although they have been called smug.  It’s more that they are reserved, and this newcomer is unquestionably odd.  The old man doesn’t pay much attention to them.  He’s more interested in his mules.
            Finally, Charley Mitchell, an insurance broker here in town and one of Henry’s cronies, starts the ball rolling, asking questions to find out more about the man.  You don’t give up easily if you want to sell insurance, but this old fellow is a tough nut to crack.  After a while Charley seems to be at a loss for ideas.
No one in the crowd expects Eunice Pruitt to pick up the ball.  She is standing near the back, but she pipes up, her voice small and trembly, “Do you take passengers?”
            The old man, packing tobacco in his pipe, looks up to scan the crowd until his eyes rest on Eunice as she fingers the contents of the large patch pockets of her full cotton skirt and looks down at her feet.
            “Sometimes,” he says quietly.  “Sometimes.”
            His answer is enough encouragement to set off a barrage of questions from the crowd.  Do you book parties?  What are your rates?  Do you take school groups? 
            He makes no reply until one of the boys asks, “Give us a ride, mister?”  He says no, hops back on board the boat and disappears below deck.
            In the fall when someone stops by the hardware store for a rake or a bulb planter or a bag of fertilizer and conversation turns to the day Captain Smith showed up, Henry Pruitt will say again,  “I didn’t know how it would change my life when that old man tied up his boat there at the landing.”  But Henry is mistaken.  Change isn’t like that.  The seed of change is planted unnoticed.  It germinates in darkness.  By the time it’s visible, it’s already growing.  He shouldn’t blame it all on Captain Smith.


            This town has grown a lot.  In some ways, though, it keeps the feeling of the smaller town it used to be.  A dairy farm still operates a stone’s throw from where the canal cuts through the village center.  It runs a small processing operation and sells milk to everyone in town who cares about real taste.  Eunice buys her cream-top milk there.
            The men who do business in the village still gather at ten o’clock each morning at Thompson’s Coffee Shop to talk of this and that.  Charley Mitchell is always there, and Fred Burton, the pharmacist, and Lou Sutherland from the bank, and John Norville, the editor of the Post, the local paper, and Henry Pruitt and Jeffrey Lambert who owns an antique shop by the canal.  Walt Thompson is there, too, of course, and never afraid to put in his two cents worth.
            Since the group doesn’t have an official charter, they’ve been able to keep it as an all-male group.  Eunice wouldn’t dream of intruding except for the once that her mother coughed up blood and the time the squirrel fell down the chimney and ran wild through the house.
            The men talk about the weather and the economy and politics and whatever comes up.  Last spring they had quite a time chewing over an article in the Democrat and Chronicle about some archeological work being done in one of the towns east of here.  The fellow in charge mentioned in the interview that he had lived here as a boy, that his interest in the canal was sparked back then.  Charley Mitchell recalled that he was the middle son of the Farrs, a family of intellectual screwballs who used to live here before they moved to Costa Rica or some such place.
What made it even more interesting, though, was that it was the same fellow Eunice once was going to marry.  Must have given Henry quite a start to see the fellow’s picture, they all said.  Joined the Peace Corps, hadn’t he?  How’d he get interested in archeology of all things?  Henry shrugged.  That was thirteen, fourteen years ago, he reminded them.  It was an odd way to make a living, but as even Henry had to admit, the fellow was an odd sort.  “Maybe with a name like Aristotle he was bound to be set apart,” someone said.
Jeffrey Lambert made the mistake of asking if the Pruitts ever heard from him anymore.  Fred Burton kicked him under the table, but it was too late.  Jeffrey didn’t live here when Eunice called the engagement off.  He wouldn’t have heard the rumors that circulated later about the fellow picking up and living with some girl he met at a commune in Vermont.  It was hard for an upstanding family like the Pruitts to have their name connected with such talk.  Henry didn’t blink an eye, though.  He looked at Jeffery directly.  “No,” he said.  “Never.”
“You know,” he confided to Fred later, “I’m afraid my Eunice is naïve.  She wanted to send that article off to him.  I told her it’s best to keep the past in the past, but she didn’t seem to get the point. ‘It’s only a clipping,’ she told me.  I told her, ‘The Pruitts have their pride.’”
Since Smith showed up here with that old canalboat, that’s what all the talk at the coffee shop is about.  Some say the old guy and his boat are causing too many problems, especially with traffic and parking as the curious flock to see this relic from the past.  Surely there’s an ordinance somewhere on the books that could force him to move on.  Others, particularly the shop owners along the canal, argue that the canalboat tied up here is a boon to business and besides, he’s not hurting anything.  He was very obliging, in fact, when the Canalside Café complained that the smell of his mules was offensive to al fresco diners.  He moved down closer to the State Street bridge where he tied up near the black walnut tree.
            On one point everyone agrees.  They’d feel a lot more comfortable if the captain would provide more complete explanations.
            Even Eunice seems caught up in curiosity about him.  Usually she keeps her distance, but she showed up where he was moored the second afternoon with a plate of her Congo bars.  “You know how quick those sell at the Presbyterian bazaar,” Henry reminds his cronies.  They say she stayed a good fifteen minutes chatting, even sat briefly on the deck while the old guy whittled.  Imagine Eunice Pruitt carrying on a conversation for that long!  And with a stranger.
            Henry would admit that ordinarily Eunice doesn’t have much to say even at the dinner table.  Usually, over pork chops or meatloaf or macaroni and cheese, Henry talks about what he’s heard at Thompson’s or this or that about the hardware store.  He understands what a blow it was to Eunice when her mother died thirteen years ago. 
        Eunice had been such a comfort to her in those long months of illness.  It was not surprising she had crawled into her shell.  His own grief had been unbearable.  So when Eunice babbles on about her chat with the old captain, Henry is pleased and vaguely amused.  The next day, though, when the men ask him what the old guy and Eunice talked about, Henry can’t think of a single thing of substance in all his daughter’s chatter.
“Not much,” he tells them.  “Small talk mostly.”  He doesn’t tell them the only thing he can recall.  It sounds too silly.
            “Captain Smith says he thinks that Canajoharie is the loveliest name of any town on the canal,” she told him.  “He says it so it rhymes with Thomas Hardy, without the “d” of course, instead of rhyming with Harry, the way you hear it now.  Canajoharie.  Isn’t that wonderful?”
            When Henry had no comment, she went on.  “I think he’s right.  Think of the others.  AlbanyUticaSyracuse.  Even Rochester or Brockport.  Buffalo.  And what about Schenectady?  Eew, that’s so harsh!”  She drifted off.  “Canajoharie,” she said at last.  “Say it.  Canajoharie.”
            But Henry didn’t say it.  He said, “Pass the salt.”
            As his daughter’s visits take on a daily pattern and her dinner table babblings continue, Henry pays more attention, knowing that his friends will be looking for a report the next day at Thompson’s.  While everyone stops to look over the boat and pass the time with the captain, only Eunice is invited to sit on the deck, only Eunice is not dismissed while he attends the mules or some chore that needs doing below deck.
            Henry is the center of attention at Thompson’s.  One day he tells them that the original canal was built without the advice of a single professional engineer, that the chief engineers were actually two country lawyers who had never even seen a real canal.  Another day they discuss the strategy of beginning the digging in the middle in the flat land around Rome instead of starting at either end.  Another day Henry showers them with statistics.  Having always had a head for figures, he remembers exactly the numbers Eunice had had to refer to scribbled on a piece of paper: that while the canal looks so level and so placid, the rise from the Hudson River to Lake Erie is 568 feet, that the original Erie featured 83 locks and 18 aqueducts.  He has his friends in the palm of his hand when he describes the way tree stumps were removed back then without the benefit of modern machinery.
            “I don’t suppose this captain has mentioned why he happened to tie up here,” says John Norville.
            “Resting his mules,” Henry answers promptly.  “At least, as far as I know,” he adds. 
            Later that afternoon when Fred stops by the hardware store for a couple molly screws, Henry asks, “Do you notice anything different about Eunice lately?”
            Fred shrugs.  “I wouldn’t worry, Henry.  They’re right in plain view of everyone sitting on that deck.  She was quite chipper the other day when she came to pick up your prescription.  Let her be happy.”
            “I’m only looking out for her.  You know, as she works about the kitchen lately,” Henry confides, lowering his voice and directing his words to Fred’s shoulder, “she hums.”
            That evening at the dinner table, Eunice tells him of the great difficulties encountered when they cut the canal through the Montezuma swamp.  “All the glory goes to the aqueducts and the locks they built,” says Eunice, “but the cut through the Montezuma swamp was just as hard, maybe harder.  More lives were lost in that flat, buggy, desolate stretch than any other section of the canal.  Malaria was rampant.  The workers, mostly Irish, dropped like flies.”
            “Lucky they were Irish,” Henry chuckles.  “That’s something the Irish are good at— making more little Irishmen.”
            Eunice purses her lips and glares.
            “Just a joke,” says Henry.  “Don’t take everything so seriously.”
            “That’s just the way they were back then.  Just another Pat, they’d say, as though somehow those lives counted less, nameless human beings who ended up with no life at all.  They were just used.”
            “It was a job to be done,” says Henry, “but it was their choice.  No one said they had to do it.”
            Eunice pushes a green bean around on her plate before stabbing it with her fork, lifting it to her mouth and chewing, her eyes averted.
            The meal lapses into silence, Eunice retreating into her world, Henry to his.
            Henry passes on the talk about the swamp when they gather at Thompson’s the next morning but the information fails to generate much interest.  Charley Mitchell put it this way:  “For all this guy has to say about the old canal, we still don’t know exactly who he is or why he came here.  That’s what I’d really like to know.”
            If the men hoped to find out from Eunice, they would be disappointed.  The next day her visit to the captain is brief, hardly more than five minutes.  When Henry asks why, she tells him she needed to run errands and do laundry, work around the house.  While Henry knows that without more information to impart he will no longer be the center of attention at Thompson’s, he is content.  Maybe, he thinks, life will get back to normal.  He doesn’t stop to consider that it is normal for life to change.


            The following day the talk at Thompson’s is about how the captain and his boat have disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived.  When he left, or why, is a matter of speculation.
            John Norville says the boat was there a little after 9:15 the night before when he crossed the State Street bridge on the way home from the meeting of the zoning board.
            Fred Burton says he knows for a fact it was gone by 6:00 a.m.  Kenny Hawkins told him so when he got gas on the way to work.
            Jeffrey Lambert says that sales had never been better in his shop than when Captain Smith’s boat was tied up there.
            Henry Pruitt, stone-faced, says his Eunice is gone too.
            That knocks the words right out of everyone.  Poor Henry.  She didn’t even leave a note.  It is a day everyone feels the need to hurry back to work.  What can they say to Henry?  But the first thing they tell their wives and families when they get home is that Eunice Pruitt ran off with the strange old bird who captained the canalboat.
            No one questions the truth of this assumption.  After all, hadn’t she been sitting on his deck day after day?  Hadn’t she been seen taking evening walks?  Wasn’t there a noticeable flush on her cheeks?  Wasn’t she even heard to giggle when she used the pay phone by the Exxon station?
Probably even Henry accepts this explanation of her disappearance until Lou Sutherland says two mornings later at Thompson’s that his daughter who lives in Palmyra called the night before to tell them that the canalboat with the strange old captain had tied up there to rest his mules.
            “So he must’ve turned around and headed back where he came from,” Lou said.
“Was Eunice...?” the others ask.  But, no, Lou’s daughter says the captain is alone.  The news is chilling.
            “Those canallers were a violent breed,” John Norville mentions darkly.
            “We never got a decent explanation who he was or what he wanted here,” says Charley.
            “The police should be called in,” says Fred.
            “Unless she didn’t go with him,” says Henry.
            That idea takes some getting used to.  “Where else would she have gone?”
            “I’m not sure,” says Henry slowly, “but I found this in her bureau drawer.”  He pulls a postcard from his shirt pocket and with shaking hand, places it on the table. 
            It reads:

                        Dear Eunice Pruitt:

Congratulations!  Your name has been selected to win at least one of the following prizes:

                        A diamond ring.
                        A Farrari.
                        A trip to Rome.

                        Notification of your acceptance is required.

            “It’s one of those promotionals,” says Jeffery.
            “Now I can’t see Eunice tempted by diamonds or some flashy sports car,” Henry is musing, “but a trip to Rome...  She’s prone to these romantic notions about far-off places.  She reads too much poetry, Keats and Byron, all that flowery stuff.  She wouldn’t stop to think of the dangers in a place like Rome with all those pickpockets and men who pinch a woman’s behind.  She tends to overlook how good life is right
here.”
“Keats died in Rome,” says John Norville.
Henry looks up.  “‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’?  ‘Ode to a Nightingale’?”
            John nods.  “‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’” he adds to the list.
            “That’s it then,” says Henry.  “How can we check this out?”  But even with John Norville’s resources and journalistic research skills, nothing can be found out about the promotional.  In fact, John says flat out that he suspects it is a hoax.  Ferrari is even spelled wrong, he observes.
            By then the gang at Thompson’s is apparently more interested in solving the mystery of Eunice’s disappearance than Henry is.  Other than saying that he will not call in the police, that the Pruitts handle their troubles privately, Henry refuses to discuss it anymore.  He changes the subject, bringing up some obscure fact he’s read in newspaper fillers or remarking on how he polished off a whole quart of Walt Thompson’s peach ice cream while watching the baseball game on TV. 
            That leaves the others to speculate among themselves and after a while the subject wears itself out.  It’s a story left dangling without a conclusion until the Tuesday before Labor Day when Eunice’s letter of resignation arrives at the superintendent’s office.  It says she will not be returning to her teaching post inasmuch as she has moved out of the area to Rome, New York.  It is signed “Eunice Farr née Pruitt.”  That’s all.  She provides no details.
Jeffrey Lambert says the story of Eunice and Ari Farr is about as romantic as it gets.  John Norville adds that the canal has always had an aura of romance, but Henry shrugs at such big statements, muttering that he doesn’t see anything romantic about a man who wears a ponytail.  Anyway, he says, he’s thinking of selling his house and his hardware business.  Maybe he’ll move to Florida where the seasons never change and a person doesn’t have to worry about dreary winter skies and rotten weather.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This story was inspired by a town in upstate New York where I lived some years ago.  The old Erie Canal ran through it and dominated our consciousness.  The village center dated back to the early nineteenth century when the canal was a major east-west route.  It reflected that era.  Its buildings included an elegant three-story brick structure that began life as a hotel, shops with recessed arches and shuttered windows, and Federal style colonials with pairs of tall chimneys on each side gable.  Even the “newer” houses in the village came from somewhat later in the nineteenth century.   It was a place where the past kept a firm grip on the present.  We rode our bikes on the towpath, bought milk at the local dairy farm and crossed the canal on singing bridges many times a day.  I borrowed many of these features for my story.  I even commandeered a group of local businessmen who gathered each morning at a coffee shop on Main Street, talking about the weather, the economy and bits of local news. 
I had a sense of Henry when I began the story and I knew Captain Thomas J. Smith would show up, but I didn’t know about Henry’s daughter Eunice and Ari Farr.  My eye was fastened on the town and the canal.  I wasn’t thinking about change and the way it creeps up on us.  While I was writing, an old folk song kept running through my head.  “I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal, fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.”  The barges that plied the Erie’s waters carried settlers to the west and brought lumber, coal and hay back to the markets in the east.  The canal opened up new land and provided people with new opportunities.  It was all about moving to the future.  I realized my story was about that too.  My characters, whether they were staying or going, were navigating change.

*****

ABOUT LINDA DYER

Linda Dyer writes both prose and poetry.  Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications: literary journals such as The Fourth River where “Navigating Change” was originally published, Soundings East, Rockhurst Review, Poet Lore, Slant and Teaching Cather; anthologies including Where the Mountain Stands Alone, Heartbeat of New England and The Blueline Anthology; newspapers, including the New York Times, the Hartford Courant and the Christian Science Monitor and online journals such as Poet’s Canvas and Brevity.  She is currently completing work on a biography with a narrow focus titled Portrait of a Writer at Work: Willa Cather in Jaffrey.  She lives in Amherst, NH and serves on the editorial board of Amoskeag at Southern New Hampshire University.  Her website is: www.lindadyer.me

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